By | by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld
Friday, June 6th, 2003 @ 8:54PM

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During NBC ‘s “Meet the Press” on Aug.3, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, commenting on new Al-Qaeda threats to conduct a series of homicide hijackings of U.S.airplanes, remarked that airline passengers are much more secure today than they were before Sept. 11, 2001. However, he conceded that “it will be several years until we get the kind of robust system that we need ” to protect the flying public..

Almost two years and approximately $2.5 billion later, U.S. airports are practically as vulnerable as they were on Sept.11. What is worrisome is that real changes have not occurred. The government is still relying on feel-good methods and ignoring the obvious – profiling passengers works. Political correctness still rules, while passengers remain at risk.We are all familiar with the images of elderly ladies and invalids being “randomly “screened at every airport, but it takes an expert like Isaac Yeffet, the former El Al airline security chief, to highlight the depth of U.S.airport security problems. Recently, while traveling in the U.S., Yeffet was randomly chosen for special screening. After the security agent swept his body with a hand-held metal-detecting wand and declared he was “clean,” Yeffet pulled a cell phone from his pocket, to the agent ‘s amazement. A second screening also detected nothing. At that point, Yeffet suggested that, if the screener turned the device on, he might be able to detect suspicious objects. Needless to say,the agent was unsettled, but Yeffet was even more upset. He asked:”How many similar incidents happen every day in our airports?” “The government is still relying on feel-good methods and ignoring the obvious – profiling passengers works” The U.S. is the world’s best when it comes to investigating accidents and mishaps, but it is performing rather poorly in trying to prevent terrorist attacks. It must adopt a proactive security system that would save citizens’ lives as well as protect infrastructure.

The new Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)said it will start using will be based on insufficient background information.It defers to a mistaken notion of political correctness, such as not requesting passengers ‘place of birth, for fear of “profiling.” Airlines are not allowed to ask for pertinent details, and their staffs have not been instructed to question a passenger’s personal behavior or background. Although it may be politically correct, it is difficult to argue that security agents should not pay special attention to passengers born in countries such as Syria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines – all countries that had and/or continue to support terrorist training. Additionally, CAPPS II will not have access to law enforcement information that would reveal a criminal record. Although they did not have criminal backgrounds, four of the 19 Sept.11 Al-Qaeda homicide hijackers had been on the FBI list as suspected terrorists before they entered the country. Had airlines been given the names of these suspects by the FBI, and instructed their chiefs of security to arrest them, we might have prevented their deadly attacks. The FBI should be sharing such information with the heads of security at all airlines operating in the U.S.Terrorist organizations will often pay criminals to do their work, and it is not unusual for terrorists to engage in criminal activities such as drugs and arms trafficking. Consequently, the FBI may have criminal records on them.

CAPPS II should not only collect information from the government, but also track passengers’ booking behavior. Ticket counter employees should be instructed to note any diversion from normal patterns of booking a flight. Also, sudden and unusual changes in reservations should be flagged. The effectiveness of sophisticated screening devices not only depends upon the information they are fed, but also upon the expertise and training of those operating them. Of the 1.5-billion pieces of baggage U.S.airlines carry each year, at least 35% trigger a false alarm during screening.The quality of follow-up checks depends entirely on the screeners. If 30,000 of the 55,000 hired recently have not even had a background check, and 50 security agents at New York’s JFK airport passed background checks that did not reveal their criminal record, how reliable is the service we are getting from the TSA?

El Al Israel Airlines is thought to have the best security in the air carrier industry, developed during four decades of dealing with a constant, growing and changing threat. Instead of adopting what El Al has been doing successfully for years, the U.S. is trying to reinvent the wheel, while endangering the lives of millions of passengers. The secret of El Al ‘s success is not in the technology it uses; it’s mainly due to the quality of security agents it employs and the methods they use. Each employee is carefully screened, thoroughly trained, tested continuously and paid well. Ask Yeffet, who serves as a consultant to major American airlines, and he’ll tell you that the human factor makes the difference. El Al screeners have been specifically trained to profile passengers, and that system should be adopted in the U.S. In addition, the U.S.can adopt new methods of inflight passenger identification, such as a system recently implemented in some Indian cities. Upon checkin,each passenger receives a boarding card containing a digital photo taken of them at the counter. Flight attendants are given a copy of each passenger ‘s boarding card to ensure that travelers only fly to their scheduled destination. For better screening of security personnel,we should adopt the Israeli method, and add, for example, tests to ensure that all employees can focus and concentrate for long periods of time.This should be followed by constant updating and testing of the overall security system and its personnel. With new Al-Qaeda threats to our airlines and passengers, now is the time for the Homeland Security Dept. to discard political correctness and do the right thing:adopt the best existing profiling methods before another disaster occurs.

Categories: U.S. Policy

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